| The Detroit News
Detroit — Jeff Blashill, like any hockey fan at this point of November, is ready for the sport to begin.
It’s definitely feeling like hockey weather again, and the Red Wings’ head coach has been excited in recent days with news nuggets flowing that the NHL could be ready to announce a plan for next season.
“We are absolutely itching to get back at it,” said Blashill, noting the Wings haven’t played or practiced since March 12, when the NHL paused its regular season because of the coronavirus.
The NHL successfully returned to play in the summer, bringing back the top 24 teams. But the Wings — who had the NHL’s worst record — were one of seven teams not brought back, so it’s been a long, long time without hockey.
“We certainly want to get back,” said Blashill, in a lengthy, wide-ranging interview with The Detroit News. “The NHL did an excellent job in their Return To Play and were in patient in making decisions when they had to the right information and I’m sure they will again this time.”
Blashill touched on a number of subjects with The News, including the Wings’ productive off-season, adding numerous unrestricted free agents who appear to have improved the depth and quality of the roster. Blashill talked about the futures of young prospects Filip Zadina, Mortiz Seider and Lucas Raymond — all recent first-round draft picks — as well as the expectations of this season.
Here’s an edited (for clarity) version of the conversation:
Question: It seems like there is some momentum to get the regular season up and going here pretty soon. Maybe around Jan. 1. Jeff, I would think, after all these months, you’re pretty excited about that.
Answer: I am excited, just to get back at it. When you’re a team like us, that hasn’t done a thing since March in terms of practice or play, we weren’t a part of the summer return to play, there are seven teams that weren’t part of that, we are absolutely itching to get back at it.
But we’re also cognizant of the fact there’s a lot going on in the world and none of this is going to be easy, so we understand that part of it for sure. But we certainly want to get back. The NHL did an excellent job in their Return To Play and were in patient in making decisions when they had to the right information and I’m sure they will again this time.
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Q. We still might be weeks away, but what will you and the staff be emphasizing in training camp? You have a bunch of new players, obviously, and it’s been a long time since you guys have played.
A. It’ll be a similar training camp. You start with making sure your work and competitive levels are where they need to be, so that’s the bottom line foundation in order to be successful.
Like any training camp, you have to make sure you’re on the same page as quick as possible. Get your systems in place as quick as possible. We’ll have a lot of new faces this year, so you want to make sure everyone is comfortable and play without thinking and guys aren’t thinking about where they are supposed to be standing, and just instinctly (know) because those habits have been built. That’s what training camp is about, setting the tone and foundation of how you’re going to play hockey.
We don’t know the length of it (camp), we don’t know the number of days or exhibitions (games), which is fine. We’ll adapt on what opportunities we’re given and certainly plan for a different scenarios.
Q. It does appear there will be fewer exhibition games, so I would think we’ll be seeing more veterans playing those games simply to knock some rust off.
A. You’re kind of serving (different) focuses normally (during camp), getting your team ready but also looking at some of the young players and seeing where they stand during exhibition games. This year that won’t be the case, necessarily.
We will have had an extraordinary amount of time off, so we’ll focus on the guys who can make the Red Wings and make us better and that will be the focus. We might be playing less exhibition games, and if that is what happens, it means more of your veteran guys that are expected to be on the team will play those games more than are normal.
Q. You touched on the new guys. On paper, it does seem the roster is much more competitive and stronger than last year given all the new additions (goalie Thomas Greiss, forwards Bobby Ryan and Vladislav Namestikov, defensemen Marc Staal, Jon Merrill, Troy Stecher).
A. (General manager) Steve (Yzerman) and his management staff did a real good job of helping us to be a better hockey team this coming season, but also planning for the future. We’re pleased with the guys that we signed, and I hope it makes us more competitive as a hockey team and more competitive within our group.
There’s still continued growth from a number of players and that’ll be a focus, and that’s not just young people, but everybody. We’ve had an opportunity over eight months to get better as individuals, some through trying circumstances where maybe you don’t have the same access for the perfect weight setup or ice setup, but I also think this time will show who has that great inner drive that the best athletes have, and I’m hoping a number of our guys have taken advantage of this time to make themselves better players.
We need to be a more competitive team, night in and night out. We certainly weren’t that last year and we need to be more more of that this year.
Q. Given all the new additions, is there an area you think you guys have gotten particularly better?
A. Given the the season we had, we needed to be stronger in all areas and I’m hoping we are. At each position, hopefully, we’re a little deeper and better. But we’ll see, time will tell. Again, you never know for sure what your group is going to look like until you get them going. Health always plays a factor.
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Q. Have you seen first-round pick Lucas Raymond live, or just on video, and what are your thoughts?
A. I have seen him on video, never live. Obviously Kris Draper (director of amateur scouting) and staff are charged with that procurement of players, through the draft, and I know they worked extremely hard.
Watching him (Raymond) play, first thing, he’s playing in a men’s league (in Sweden), that’s a real good league, and the hard part about hockey is prospects play at different levels, and I would say he’s showed at times of being electric offensively, especially when he’s in his own age group. He has a chance to be an electric player. I know his hockey sense is real high and compete level is real high and those are things that are foundations of success. We’re excited to add him to the group.
But like any player, it’s a process. It’s not an instantaneous thing that guys appear up on your roster and make you better right away. They’re young people and they have to grow and the ones that grow the most end up being the best players. Knowing he has the work ethic to continue to grow is an important factor and hopefully he can be a great Red Wing.
Q. What have you guys as a staff done to get ready for the coming season, whenever that’ll be?
A. We’ve had coaches meetings a month ago when there was the potential of starting earlier, preparing for training camp and being fully prepared with the information we have. We’ll continue to grind and make sure we’re as ready as possible. We know how we want to play, and make sure we’ve planned out multiple different scenarios in terms of what training camp and the regular season will look like.
Q. In terms of how you want to play, how do you think you’ll need to play to be successful with this group?
A. It’s just not successful for this year but making sure we are building for a better tomorrow. We have to make sure we have a long term approach as a coaching staff and never taking a short cut for short term success, and have an eye for long term success. That means guys doing the right things and that our execution is a little bit higher. Things as simple as a tape to tape pass are more crisp and we’re more efficient in our play. Those things are critical. Hockey is not vastly different from one team to another. We’re going to play a smarter brand of hockey as we can.
Q. Is there a young player on the roster you are especially eager to see on the ice after all these months?
A. I would just say Filip Zadina is a young player who I thought was making good strides in Detroit last year. He was taking steps in the right direction, but he got derailed by injury. He’s had an opportunity to play in the Czech Republic, and between an injury he suffered and the league shutting down for a period of time, it’s been kind of stop and start, but he’s back playing again and when I watch him, he was doing the right things and doing the things to be successful.
That league is a hard working league, guys are strong and play hard, so that part of it is similar to the NHL. That’s a positive for him that he is playing over there. I will be excited to see how he looks when he comes back over here and we get going. He’s certainly a young guy who can continue to grow and become the winning type of hockey player we need.
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Q. Every fan I interact with asks about Moritz Seider (the 2019 first-round pick playing in Sweden), so I’ll ask you. What does the future hold for Seider this coming season?
A. That’s hard to say. I’ll just say Mortiz is a real good young prospect. He’s been taking challenges on an done a real good job of advancing those challenges on a consistent basis. Right now, he’s playing in a real good league in the Swedish Hockey League and he’s taking on that challenge and doing a real good job.
The important part for Moritz is just the continued growth. He has a chance to be an excellent NHL player. When that is, we’ll see. But he has a chance to be an excellent NHL player and he just needs to keep growing.
There’s a lot of unknowns right now going on with our league, the American Hockey League, with everything. Steve did a real good job, along with Shawn Horcoff (director of player development) and our group did a real good job of getting our young players placed in (European) leagues where they can keep playing and growing. That’s an important part of it.
Q. That really was a key development, wasn’t it? Getting those young players into situations where they’re playing and getting those valuable repetitions?
A. It’s huge. We’ve got a number of young players over there, they’re playing in good leagues and each league has its own unique challenges and it’s important they’re playing. They had a long time to maximize their bodies and now they chance to grow as young players.
Q. So what are you doing with all this available time?
A. We’ve looked at a number of different things. We’re continuing to try to find the best usage of analytics as possible. We’ve had a time period here where I’ve had a chance to work with our analytics groups over a significant period of time and really look and pick things apart.
Q. You’ve always been a coach who likes to use the analytics and maximize that with what you see with your own eyes, correct?
A. I’m in search of anything that helps gives us the best information possible, and I’ve been in search of that a number of years. A lot of it is noise. It doesn’t necessarily predict success or tell you what happened and some of it we’re closing in on of hopefully getting stats that are useful.
I’ve just been somebody who has been trying to search and find really good ways to use it, that are clear, definable, measurable, and important and hopefully we’re working hard toward that.”